Monthly Archives: May 2016

Terminal Education and the Death of Culture

Terminal EducationYouth is being wasted on education. More and more young people are becoming victims of what can be called ‘terminal education’, which is not about lifelong learning and opening minds to the world – not anymore. Increasingly the education process is a conveyor-belt affair, where naive and optimistic youth are moved through a series of stations along the way to a long life of work.

Many of them don’t make it, and it’s not entirely their fault.

Feeling the pressure of limited resources and a fluctuating job market, college administrators are remodeling the process of education into a production-line for making graduates who are expected in turn to fill jobs and strengthen the economy. A stronger economy should mean more resources eventually coming back to the college, right? It might work that way if our colleges weren’t turning out such dismal figures when it comes to academic achievement, graduation rates, and job placement for their graduates.

There are really two systemic problems with our current education system, one of which is the terminal orientation of the process (the main focus of this blog post). Underlying this problem, however, with a history equally as deep, is the way our system over-accommodates students in their struggle to succeed in school. Rather than working to empower in students the determination, best effort, perseverance, and resilience that lead to meaningful achievement, schools already from the elementary level have been lowering the bar, so as to reduce the risk of failure.

Are they doing this because they feel badly for the struggling students? No, these accommodations are being provided so that students will produce the academic outcomes (grades, grade point averages, and standardized test scores) that increase institutional eligibility for external funding, updated technology, and higher quality teachers.

Generally the rule is that accommodations cost more the later such interventions are needed, so by putting accommodations in place early this threat can be averted. Unfortunately what happens is that students are pushed up a grade without the intellectual skills and emotional resources to succeed there.

When it’s time for college, they’re not ready – not by a long shot. But colleges need to show robust enrollments, so they end up falling in line with the accommodation train. Remedial classes, academic interventions, prerequisites for credit classes, and even special accommodation for students who can produce a diagnosis from a growing list of learning disorders – all of it necessary if the year-end report is to show an institution’s market value.

Maybe the underpreparedness of students is part of the reason that education has become terminal. If all your time and resources are tied up in simply getting them to graduation, what’s left for the work of opening minds, igniting passion, nurturing creativity, and developing human potential? Not much. And frankly, the students themselves don’t seem to want it. Never mind that they have no inkling of what ‘it’ even is, having rarely been empowered in the love of learning.

A depleted system produces deficient members, whose deficiency further depletes the health reserve of the system: this is the kind of reinforcing feedback loop that inevitably ends with extinction.

I suppose that’s one meaning of the word ‘terminal’.

But another meaning, and the one I want to focus on here, describes how education today is aimed at very specific and measurable outcomes, and ultimately on the need of students to find gainful employment.

Why are you planning to go to college? Because I need to find a job. And of course, before I can find a job I need to earn a degree. For the degree, I have to get decent grades. In order to get a grade I have to take a class. And before I can take a class, it’s necessary to choose a college and be accepted.

Why are you doing this again? To find a job. When I get a job, it will all be worth it and my education will finally be over. Done. Finis.

It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that many students don’t make it. In my diagram above, the likelihood of success at each step diminishes the farther along students get, as indicated by the thinning arrow. With each step the definition of success also becomes less clear, as illustrated in the fading shade of text. Additionally, the consequence of failure grows more severe as students move through the stations: withdrawing from a class is not as serious as dropping out of school, and the disillusionment that comes when your degree fails to unlock a career can be personally devastating.

‘Plan B’ is another way of saying that things didn’t work out as you hoped they would.

If all this focus is placed on the terminal outcome of finding a job, there is little inherent value acknowledged in the process of education itself. It’s not really about learning how to think and solve problems, developing talent and unleashing creativity, or opening minds to the mysteries of life and promoting the self-actualization of human beings. And yet it is these things which have been the seedbed of human culture for millenniums, not ‘getting a job’.

Terminal education is both a symptom and a warning that our culture is losing its spirit.

Thankfully it’s not too late to turn things around.

College is more than a pipeline of graduates into the workforce, and the deepest value of education is probably something that can’t even be measured. For at least four years (in the conventional scheme of things) young people are growing into their adult selves, learning how to get along in the world, pushing open boundaries, tapping the inner springs of their native intelligence, discovering passions and exploring their dreams.

A higher education – but really, at every grade along the way – needs to have one eye on the economic landscape and changing demands of the job market, with the other on its sacred stewardship of the human spirit.


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Unfinished Business

Unfinished BusinessI guess I write a lot about what I feel is most urgently needing our attention these days. Current events are interesting because they’re in the news and on our minds, but popular engagement with the news of the day tends to skim the surface of what’s really going on. It’s not nuclear proliferation, terrorist plots, melting ice caps, or the next election that we should be figuring out, but the deeper forces that are presently driving and shaping our reality.

We need a psychological model that reveals the truth about ourselves without reducing us to mindless matter, on one side, or elevating us to metaphysical dimensions, on the other. Importantly it should provide an honest accounting of both the promises and liabilities that attach to our human nature, in a way that makes sense in a secular and global age. The elements of my model are not new in themselves, but I offer definitions and relationships among the elements that are novel – and, I hope, relevant to the current challenges we face.

My diagram above draws an arc of development from a body-centered (early) phase, through an ego-centered (middle) phase, and reaching fulfillment in a soul-centered (late) phase. I’ve joined body and soul in something of a tensive image, stretching between the animal and spiritual aspects of our essential nature. A simple statement of this essential nature is that we are ‘spiritual animals’, animals with a capacity for imagination, creativity, contemplation, transcendence, and communion.

We are not ‘souls in bodies’ or ‘bodies with souls’, but rather a marvelous duality of consciousness that is at once centered in life (body) and grounded in being (soul).

Before we hitch a ride with ego along that rising and falling arc, let’s spend a little more time getting to know the body where its hero journey begins. In other posts I have characterized body as naturally extroverted, that is, as flexing consciousness outward to the surrounding environment and continuously regulating its own internal state (as an organism) according to those external cues and conditions. The body’s own internal urgencies operate for the most part below our conscious awareness and almost entirely outside our conscious control. We might regard the body itself as a highly evolved energy exchange between external resources and these internal urgencies, between the provident conditions of the environment and its own metabolic demands as a living organism.

Ego formation (the rising arc of personal development) entails some decisive negotiations with the body’s animal nature, a process that is motivated and supervised by our tribe. The expected outcome of this process is a centered identity that sees itself as belonging to ‘us’, obediently performing roles that contribute to the welfare of the group. What we call morality is the set of rules, values, incentives, and deterrents that constrain us to behave like a ‘good boy’ or ‘nice girl’ and eventually as a compliant member of the tribe.

Psychologically ego formation is also where reality starts to divide in two, with an objective (‘thrown-over’) world on one side, and a subjective (‘thrown-under’) self on the other side of this line. World here is not a synonym for reality, as we sometimes speak of ‘the real world’ as a factual and nonfictional realm beyond us. As I use the term, world refers to the construct of symbols, language, meaning, and morality that ego, with the help of its tribe, builds around itself. Much of it is (in fact) fictional, in the sense of being a narrative construction of metaphors and stories that form a cross-referencing web of meaning where an individual feels secure.

Self is also a narrative construct made from strands of memory, preferences, beliefs, and ambitions that connect into a relatively continuous braid of character which ego identifies as ‘me’. As a construct, self is no more real than the world in which ego finds refuge and significance. Personal identity, therefore, represents a separate project from the deeper evolutionary one of becoming a mature and fully actualized human being. Indeed, the project of identity-formation can seriously impede and even completely undermine human progress in this larger sense.

Instead of an ego that is stable, balanced, and unified – together comprising a virtue known as ‘ego strength’ – development gets arrested in one or more spectrum disorders (borderline personality, bipolar mood, or dissociative identity).

Getting stuck here – arrested, hooked, fixated – is what lies behind so much suffering that individuals chronically endure and proceed to inflict on each other. Rather than operating from a position of creative authority where the adaptive compatibility between self and world affords the freedom and responsibility to be oneself, neurotic insecurity closes the mind inside rigid convictions and condemns the individual to a prison of shame and conceit, impotence and aggression, profound doubt and fundamentalist certainty, all or nothing.

Increasingly desperate bids for security turn into deadly campaigns for supremacy; or else, which in the long run amounts to the same thing, a final relief from torment through suicide.

A critical deficiency in ego strength prevents an individual from being able to ‘go beyond’, or transcend, the self-and-world construct for the sake of a larger and more authentic experience. Creative inspiration, mystical contemplation, empathic communion, genuinely open dialogue – such experiences are unavailable to the personality which is trapped inside itself.

These experiences, sought and celebrated in healthy cultures, are only possible as ego succeeds in letting go, dropping out, and moving beyond the conventional structures of meaning, deeper into the present mystery of reality.

And thus we have arrived at our consideration of soul, as that introspective turn of consciousness to its own grounding mystery. Even here, however, ego might attempt to take control and claim the inner life of soul as merely another name for subjectivity, for the permanent core of personal identity. I’ve suggested in other posts that this error of mistaken identity is behind the widespread religious doctrine of personal immortality. It’s essential to note, however, that the grounding mystery within is neither the ego, its personality, nor the self of ‘who I am.’

Despite the obvious popularity of the idea across cultures, the invention of personal immortality marks a serious corruption in our proper understanding of the soul.

When ego is transcended – not negated, rejected, renounced, or subjugated, but released and surpassed in a more inclusive, holistic, and unitive experience – consciousness sinks into its own grounding mystery and proceeds thence (or perhaps simultaneously) outwards along the expanding horizons of sensory awareness to the breakthrough insight that All is One. From deep within, far below the surface concerns of our historical situation, we find the grace to relax into being, open ourselves to reality, and ponder our place in the turning rhythms of a universal order (or universe).

This is the birthplace of philosophy, according to its original intention as the ‘love of wisdom’. Only as we achieve liberation from the centripetal (shrinking and tightening) constraints of personal identity can we appreciate the astonishing truth that, in us, the universe is contemplating itself. If we can be faithful in this practice, those chronic and intractable problems that are currently threatening to undo us will simply unwind and fall away.


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Matter, Life, Spirit


One of the challenges we face as we advance deeper into a secular and global reality is how to redefine the terms ‘spirit’, ‘spiritual’, and ‘spirituality’ so they can have relevance to life today. While they carried metaphorical meaning in a mythopoetic reality, and were converted into a supernatural and metaphysical realm above or apart from the historical reality of empirical facts, in our increasingly this-worldly (secular) and interconnected (global) realities of today, their meaning is in question.

Many people with an interest in spirituality but not so much in organized religion continue with those old out-dated supernatural and metaphysical references. Spirit (along with soul) is still regarded as ‘not of this world’, separate from our embodied existence, temporarily inhabiting our bodies (or trapped inside), haunting the outer boundaries of science and ordinary life.

One common way of including spirit (etc.) in our contemporary worldview is to see it as a further stage of evolution. Similar to the way life emerged from inorganic matter, so spirit awakened and eventually came forth from life. Such an evolutionary perspective has some obvious advantages over the ancient (historical) view of spirit as something added from outside, or as a higher and more perfect state of being from which we fell once upon a time.

But the evolutionary model has its shortcomings as well, chief of which is the assumption that spirit is something with objective existence, separate from and outside its organic and material substrates. So separate and outside, in fact, that popular conceptions of spirit envision it as occupying its own metaphysical realm, above (super-) nature or behind the sensory-physical screen.

One of the earliest metaphors of spirit (breath, as the invisible life-force that keeps our bodies alive) perhaps encourages the idea of its objective (out there) status and is likely behind the widespread belief that when a body expires, its spirit leaves to go somewhere else to live.

Such commonsense metaphysics notwithstanding, our metaphor of spirit as breath actually supports an opposite idea, which is that it represents not some entity moving in and out of bodies but rather the invigorating life-force within. Whereas life is expressive and out-spreading, spirit is how the universe opens inward to the deeper registers of being. Life is the astonishing product of evolution, the ‘roll-out’ of organic and sentient species, while spirit is the equally astonishing capacity of life for involution, particularly in the species of homo sapiens, where the light of consciousness is turned upon its own inner depths.

I realize that in refusing the lure of metaphysics and choosing not to regard spirit as something outside or behind the realm of physical life, I am taking a significant departure from the common path of religion. I do this not to be contentious, and certainly not because I am sympathetic with reductionist theories that leave us with nothing but ‘atoms in the void’. It might sound at first as if my denial of spirit – and of the god-symbol used to represent it – as a separately existing reality apart from that of our physical life is a vote for atheism, but this is not the case at all.

As my returning reader knows by now, I am an evangelist for post-theism, which moves the conversation past the stalemate of theism and atheism in order to explore the nature of spirituality after (on the other side of: post-) our conventional representations of god. A study of religious history reveals the indisputable development of god from intuition into metaphor, from metaphor into symbol, from symbol into concept, and (fatefully) from literary figure (in the myths) into a literal being (up there, out there). Along the way god becomes progressively more humane, that is, less brutal and more gracious, less temperamental and more reasonable, less demanding and more forgiving.

This progression in god’s development makes perfect sense from a constructivist point of view, where the whole business is interpreted as one long project in cultural meaning-making. Our representation of god serves a purpose, and when this purpose is fulfilled our task becomes one of stepping fully into our own creative authority. In this sense we ‘grow into god’, not in becoming gods but by actualizing the (projected) virtues represented in god and gradually moving past our need to orient on a transcendent ideal. Obedience gives way to aspiration, and aspiration matures in self-actualization.

Spirit, then, does not ‘live inside us’, as in the classical conception of the indwelling soul, but is rather the deep creative center and inner ground of being where human opens inward to being and the universe becomes aware of itself in us. Even though my model presents it as a later-stage development, spirit is not something added to or housed inside the physical chassis of our living body, but (again) refers to the capacity of consciousness to contemplate its own grounding mystery.

In three moves, we (1) shift attention from the sensory-physical realm, (2) turn inward to the ground of being where we come to an ineffable intuition of oneness, and then (3) open again to the surrounding field with the profound appreciation that ‘All is One’.

This deeper (spiritual) vantage point, or what I also call the ‘mental location’ of soul, is the abiding place of genuine spirituality. It allows us to cultivate a mysticism of wonder (or one-der) and work it out into a relevant cosmology and way of life. Our challenge today is to set aside the old metaphysics which are no longer congruent with our current science and psychology, or compatible with the ethical challenges we face as a globally connected species.

We take our place at the source and allow its inspiration to guide us in constructing a habitat of meaning (i.e., a world) that incorporates what we presently know about the universe and our own creative responsibility within it. If we are on the threshold of a spiritual breakthrough of some kind, it will have to lead us deeper into life and closer to one another.


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